Should influencers with a sizeable following do more for social causes?
The court of public opinion seems to be favouring a ‘yes’. A verdict that can be attributed to growing anti-influencer sentiment coupled with the rise of ‘woke culture’. This notion is best evidenced by the George Floyd fuelled Black Lives Matter movement, where anyone and everyone with a following were hounded to speak out.
As the world’s leading gay Asian influencer, my next interviewee is certainly not immune to that pressure. When he voiced his support for #BLM however, he was met with a swift and relentless backlash. Some criticised him for doing the bare minimum. Others attacked him for not speaking out on other issues.
Dear Straight People,
Meet 34-year old Edison Fan, who boasts more than half a million Instagram followers, along with over 1 million followers on Weibo. With such a formidable following, Edison Fan is arguably the world’s leading gay Asian influencer. And it’s not hard to see why.
In a world where pretty muscled boys are a dime a dozen, Edison stands out from the rest. For starters, he is the face and founder of two successful fashion ventures – OMG Sportswear and U-Touch Underwear, which helps explain why his Instagram feed is anything but run-of-the-mill.
Peppered with magazine worthy shots from professional photoshoots, Edison’s feed is in a league of its own. Beautiful photos aside, his 3-year old son Frederick, whom he had through commercial surrogacy, makes him a particularly intriguing figure.
But 2020 presents new challenges to influencers. And I’m not just referring to the global pandemic.
There is growing pressure on those with a large platform to speak out on social issues. For Edison, one of the biggest criticisms against him, especially among his fans in China, is that Edison doesn’t speak out about the LGBTQ+ community enough. As one of China’s few openly gay public figures, that expectation is understandable. When I press Edison about this, he laments:
It is not like I don’t want to say inspirational things, it’s more that I just don’t have anything inspirational to say.
This might be a confusing statement to some. But in order to understand Edison’s perspective, there is a need to see where Edison came from.
Born in Nanjing, Edison was conditioned into believing that homosexuality was abnormal while growing up. Back then, the internet was still in its early days. And LGBTQ+ representation was sorely lacking. In fact, the only form of representation that Edison got to see was the one gay show made in Mainland China that got banned by the authorities.
I had to sneak my way around to watch it. But because of the sneaking, it makes you feel like you are doing something wrong.
It wasn’t until Edison moved to New Zealand at the age of 16 that he realised being gay was ok.
A lot of it had to do with Ellen Degeneres. After my English got better, I would watch a few of her stand-ups and it actually made me realise that it was ok to be gay.
Soon after, Edison came out to his close friends from college. But while Edison was living an open life in New Zealand with his then boyfriend, he did not plan to come out to his parents till much later.
They spent a lot of time investing in me and now that I’m about to graduate and have a stable job, I don’t want to burden them with this news just yet. I just want them to have a few years to be carefree. That was my plan.
Life however, had other plans for him.
After a particularly bad fight with his then boyfriend that left him in tears, Edison came out to his mum unexpectedly after she kept probing.
It was just a very bad weekend because of the fight and I thought well, how much worse can this weekend get? So I started to tell her. That was how I came out. It wasn’t planned. It was very spontaneous.
Despite Edison’s plea, his mum told Edison’s dad the very next day. While his parents didn’t have a dramatic reaction to his coming out, they weren’t exactly accepting either.
They had a huge conversation with me.
The key conversation point was ‘If you don’t want to be with a girl, it’s fine. But you cannot be with a guy’. It was pretty clear that my dad wanted me to break up with my then boyfriend.
As their reaction was better than he had hoped for, Edison agreed to their demands. But unbeknownst to them, Edison got back together with his then boyfriend just two weeks later.
It took his mum another 3 months to realise that they were back together. Realising that it was futile trying to keep them apart, his mum asked Edison to invite his then boyfriend home.
I think when parents first hear about homosexuality, the go-to thought for them is that it is a deviant lifestyle. And they link it to HIV and drugs.
So it was very important for me to provide them with visual proof that we were a normal couple.
When Edison’s mum saw how they were just like any other couple, it helped her understand her son better. Over time, both his parents came to accept Edison’s sexuality.
The Edison of today is a far cry from the semi-closeted man that he was over a decade ago. Not only is Edison ‘out’ in every way imaginable, he runs a very gay friendly business where he is his own boss. As a result, Edison has in his own words, ‘lost touch with the gay struggle‘.
I have already moved into a phase of my life where being gay doesn’t affect me. I can’t speak out about it because I don’t have any inspiration for it.
But the lack of inspiration is not the only reason why Edison doesn’t speak out more on gay matters. His very public divorce with New Zealander Josh Taylor back in 2016, is another factor.
After a very public relationship and marriage, Edison’s divorce in 2016 caught his fans off-guard. Instead of garnering sympathy, his divorce was met with backlash.
I was going through a tough time but my followers turned on me.
All of the negative comments that I was getting were coming from gay people. That made a part of me not want to have anything to do with the gay community.
The backlash to his divorce was not the only backlash that Edison had to contend with. Recently, Edison was criticised for voicing his support on the Black Lives Matter movement.
When Edison posted about Black Lives Matter after being urged by his followers to do so, other followers attacked him on why he wasn’t voicing out about Hong Kong and Taiwan instead.
These people knew exactly why I can’t talk about those issues but they insisted on putting me on the spot with bad intentions. Just because I talk about one issue doesn’t mean I need to talk about all other issues.
The situation that Edison has found himself in, is a by-product of the modern conundrum of what being an ‘influencer’ entails in today’s society.
The term “influencer” was originally coined to refer to social media figures who had the power to influence consumer decisions. The issue with that term however, is that ‘influence’ implies an expectation to influence people beyond commercial decisions. The rise of woke culture in particular, have led to greater pressure on influencers to use their platforms to campaign for social causes.
The problem with that expectation though, is that many influencers did not build their following through advocacy. Many acquired their following purely as a result of being conventionally attractive. To suddenly expect them to be socially conscious is to subject them to an unfair responsibility. Some may be uncomfortable with airing their views on touchy subjects. Others are apathetic. Many simply don’t have anything to say.
So should influencers with a sizeable following do more for social causes?
I expect some of you won’t be happy with my answer. But I believe that the answer should be no.
Influencers should only voice out on matters that they feel genuinely passionate about. Doing otherwise will not only seem inauthentic, it will be quite irksome too.
Like many other influencers, Edison has never proclaimed himself to be an advocate. Edison Fan is simply a man trying to raise his son, support his parents, and run his businesses. While he may not be an advocate for social causes, the fact that he is living his life as openly as he does is pretty inspiring in itself. After all, an openly gay Chinese father would have been unheard of just as recently as a decade ago.
So instead of pressuring ‘influencers’ to be social advocates, perhaps it’s time we refer to them for what they really are; content creators. Because frankly, that is what the vast majority of them are. Much like how celebrities commenting on politics have always drawn the ire of the general public, ‘influencers’ shouldn’t be expected to voice out on social issues just because they have a sizeable following.
Influencer or not, it’s time we normalise speaking out on something only if you genuinely have the desire to do so.
Once again, Dear Straight People would like to thank Edison Fan for sharing his story with us.
If you would like to keep up to date with how Edison Fan is doing, you can connect with Edison Fan on Instagram via @EdisonFanye
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